[Marxism] Religious ultra-nationalism in the IDF
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 22 08:53:13 MDT 2009
NY Times, March 22, 2009
A Religious War in Israel’s Army
By ETHAN BRONNER
JERUSALEM — The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by
Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in
the recent Gaza fighting highlights a debate here about the rules of
war. But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular
liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.
Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a
premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular
kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers,
portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in
Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their
message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land
by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight
to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy
land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had
in this operation was of a religious war.”
Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who
solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by
the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing
anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.
“If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our
hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren’t representative of the
whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of
the population, what can we expect?” he said. “To whom do we complain?”
For the first four decades of Israel’s existence, the army — like many
of the country’s institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw
themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two,
religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the
West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military
responsibility. (In Israeli society, they are a growing force, distinct
from, and more modern than, the black-garbed ultra-Orthodox, who are
excused from military service.)
In many cases, the religious nationalists have ascended to command
positions from precisely the kind of premilitary college course that Mr.
Zamir runs — but theirs are run by the religious movements rather than
his secular one, meaning that the competition between him and them is
both ideological and careerist.
“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated
by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies,” noted
Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military
code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically
liberal. “The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli
society through the army.”
For Mr. Halbertal, like for the vast majority of Israelis, the army is
an especially sensitive institution because it has always functioned as
a social cauldron, throwing together people from all walks of life and
scores of ethnic and national backgrounds, and helping form them into a
cohesive society with social networks that carry on throughout their lives.
Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned
about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai
Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active
during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the
He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a
slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up
being cruel to the merciful.”
A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found
to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The
Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.
At the time, in January, Avshalom Vilan, then a leftist member of
Parliament, accused the rabbi of having “turned the Israeli military’s
activity from fighting out of necessity into a holy war.”
Immediately after Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in
2005 and then from several West Bank settlements, there was a call to
disband certain religious programs in the army because some soldiers in
them said they would refuse to obey future orders to disband
settlements. After the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the increase in rocket
attacks on Israel, that discussion died down.
But Yaron Ezrahi, a leftist political scientist at Hebrew University who
has been lecturing to military commanders, said that the call to close
those programs should now be revived because what was evident in Gaza
was that the humanistic tradition from which a code of ethics is derived
was not being sufficiently observed there.
The dispute over control of the army is not only ideological. It is also
personal, as all politics is in this small, intimate country. Those who
disagree with the chief rabbi have vilified him. Those who are unhappy
with what Mr. Zamir did by leaking the transcript of the Gaza soldiers’
testimonies last week have spread word that he is a leftist ideologue
out to harm Israel.
In 1990, Mr. Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves,
was sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony involving
religious Jews visiting the West Bank city of Nablus. For some, that
refusal is a badge of honor; for others it is an act of insubordination
and treason. A quiet campaign began on Thursday regarding Mr. Zamir’s
leftist sympathies, to discredit the transcript he publicized.
At the same time, Rabbi Rontzki’s numerous sayings and writings have
been making the rounds among leftist intellectuals. He has written, for
example, that what others call “humanistic values” are simply subjective
feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah.
He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a
non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick
and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.
Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi
Rontzki, said the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between
religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves. The
debate is over three issues — the sanctity of land versus life; the
relationship between messianism and Zionism; and the place of non-Jews
in a sovereign Jewish state.
The religious left argues that the right has made a fetish of the land
of Israel instead of letting life take precedence, he said. The
religious left also rejects the messianic nature of the right’s Zionist
discourse, and it argues that Jewish tradition values all life, not
primarily Jewish life.
“The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality,
as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,”
he said. “They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also
Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”
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